- First visit: exact date unknown, probably in spring of 2001
- Most recent visit: Sunday, June 6th 2021
Growing up on the Jersey shore in the 1970s and 1980s, we did not have any local baseball. Our nearest ballpark was Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia. During most of that time, the nearby MLB parks were difficult to reach, so we did not go to many live professional games until the mid 1980s. While we were aware of the minor leagues, we did not have any local minor league teams close to us. Had there been a local minor league team, we would have spent quite a bit of time at the ballpark, as thirsty as we were for live professional baseball. That would have been like a dream to avid baseball fans across central NJ.
Fast forward to 2001, when FirstEnergy Park, home of the Lakewood Blue Claws (the low A affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies) opened. If you are not familiar with Lakewood, NJ, you are far from alone. Lakewood is a town in central NJ, about 15 miles from the shore, lying on the northern edge of the NJ Pine Barrens. Lakewood is about a 20 minute drive from where we grew up, and is easily accessible via the Garden State Parkway and US Route 1. The stadium is just a few minutes from either of these thoroughfares, and is not difficult to find the park using any of the standard mapping apps. Parking is plentiful in front of the ballpark, and price for parking is very reasonable at $5.00 (paying attendants before entering the ballpark property). Depending on the crowd for the game, even the furthest most parking spots are just a few minutes walk to the home plate entrance.
FirstEnergy Park is a modular stadium, featuring a single deck of seats extending from just past third base behind home plate to just behind first base. Between the seats in left and right field and the walls, there are picnic areas, which tend to host families and groups of people in a more informal seating arrangement. A row of luxury seats sit atop the stadium, extending from dugout to dugout. All told, these areas hold about 6,600 fans, which is large for a ballpark featuring low A baseball. Beyond both the left and right field walls lie grass covered berms, which can accommodate another 1,440 fans, for a total capacity of 8,000. Again, this total is very high for a lower level minor league club, and would be more befitting of a AA team.
Unlike most minor league stadiums, the outfield is open, revealing groves of pine trees, especially in left field, accentuating the suburban feel of FirstEnergy Park. In keeping with the “Jersey Shore” theme (though the park is about 15 miles from the nearest beach), there are lifeguard chairs at the top of the berms in left and right field. Finally, a nice video board (for the level of play) sits in left centerfield, between the berm and the batter’s eye. Food and drink at FirstEnergy Park is mostly generic, with standard offerings at the concession areas located on the main concourse above the seating area at reasonable prices. While the Biergarten in left field offers more exotic beer and alcohol choices, the cuisine in the remainder of the park is what you might expect.
FirstEnergy Park has a laid back feel to it, which fits the surroundings quite well. Not surprisingly, the Blue Claws draw fairly well, averaging about 5,350 fans per game, which is close to the top of the South Atlantic League. Though the date of our first visit to the park is unclear, it was in the spring of 2001. Weather in spring across central NJ (especially near the shore) can be fickle, with as many days having cool, drizzly conditions as sunshine, and my memory of our first visit was the former. On those days, attendance can be quite low; in fact, it is possible to hear the players talking to each other when the weather is dank. During the summer months, hot and humid conditions can occasionally be modified by an afternoon sea breeze, which helps keep thunderstorms in the western part of NJ at bay.
Since Lakewood is a member of a league of younger, inexperienced players, the level of play is NOT the highest caliber in the minor leagues. Players are generally in their early 20s, but some are teens from other countries, and sometimes the level of play reflects that. However, there is talent in the league, and it often the second stop through the organization for players that you may see again in MLB. In fact, both Ryan Howard and Cole Hamels played in Lakewood on their way to MLB super stardom. If you understand that going into the event, baseball at FirstEnergy Park is fun in a relaxed environment.
Though very rare, it is possible to see MLB players on rehab assignments at FirstEnergy Park. Most likely, Phillies players working their way back from injury would play a few games here before returning to the major league club. However, my brother did get to see the next best thing. Tim Tebow, chasing his baseball dreams, played for the Columbia Fireflies in 2017. When the Fireflies came to Lakewood, the games were very well intended (as you might expect). Getting a glimpse of a sensation like Tebow in this intimate environment is impossible in larger venues like MLB, and access here is unparalleled. From a fan perspective, places like FirstEnergy park offer the best game experience for the money, and is ideal for families and large groups.
As part of the minor league realignment mandated by MLB, the Blue Claws were assigned to the new Mid Atlantic League for the 2021 season. Lakewood becomes the Jersey Shore Blue Claws, and moves up to A ball, which means more seasoned players and crisper overall play. There are other things to do and see when visiting central NJ and the Jersey shore, but if you are a diehard baseball fan, do your best to see FirstEnergy Park. It is a first class facility that is worthy of your time and effort.